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Watchdog ‘Examining’ BBC Chairman’s Charity over Donations to Right-Wing Political Groups

Richard Sharp pumped money into a group that funds causes like the TaxPayers’ Alliance, Eurosceptics and the BBC-bashing News-Watch. Now the Charity Commission is “engaging” with his foundation

Richard Sharp appearing before the Treasury Committee in 2016. Photo: UK Parliament

Watchdog ‘Examining’ BBC Chairman’s Charity over Donations to Right-Wing Political Groups

Richard Sharp pumped money into a group that funds causes like the TaxPayers’ Alliance, Eurosceptics and the BBC-bashing News-Watch. Now the Charity Commission is “engaging” with his foundation

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The Chairman of the BBC faces a potential probe into his personal charity that has donated tens of thousands of pounds to a think tank funding right-wing organisations and causes, Byline Times can reveal.

Last month, this newspaper reported that Boris Johnson appointee Richard Sharp donated money through his personal charity, the Sharp Foundation, to an organisation that funds right-wing organisations in the UK – several of which back the privatisation of the BBC. 

It came amid a growing cloud over Richard Sharp’s leadership of the BBC Board, which is responsible for ensuring that the broadcaster stays true to its mission and remains impartial.

Sharp – who has donated more than £400,000 to the Conservatives – gave the money to the Institute for Policy Research (IPR). It does not have a website but is run by several prominent Conservative backers.

Sharp’s donations include £20,000 in 2017 and the same amount in 2018.

Now Byline Times can report that the regulator, the Charity Commission, is in discussions with the Sharp Foundation amid concerns over potential rule breaches. Only Richard Sharp and a relative are trustees.

The regulator has said it is “engaging” with the Sharp Foundation to assess whether rules have been broken. There is not a formal inquiry into the Foundation or the Institute for Policy Research.

However, a Charity Commission spokesperson told Byline Times: “We continue to examine this matter and are engaging with the charity to determine if there’s a regulatory role for the Commission.”

Charity Commission Powers

The Charity Commission’s assesses concerns in line with its regulatory and risk framework to inform its possible next steps.

The framework states: “We will prioritise our casework resources towards addressing the highest risks, those which have the potential to cause the highest level of harm to public trust and confidence, or which may affect trustees’ ability to comply with their duties.”

If concerns are substantiated, the Commission can take enforcement action, such as stripping a charity of its status. However, early interventions can involve “contacting a charity’s trustees to alert them to the concerns”. Action can include issuing advice, guidance or alerts to trustees, monitoring charities with “identified risk factors”, disqualifying trustees or issuing an official warning.

There is no evidence that the Commission will take any enforcement action at this stage.

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Byline Times approached the Sharp Foundation for comment, but the only contact details available were to the charity’s accountants, VCS. A staff member there said they were unaware that VCS was the only contact point for the foundation, but could not provide any information. Sharp’s representative did not comment.

The BBC Chairman has hired reputation management firm Garfield Advisory amid the investigations into his appointment at the BBC and alleged role in helping to secure a large loan for Boris Johnson shortly before the then Prime Minister handed him the corporation’s top job. Sharp has denied any allegations of wrongdoing.

Political Donations?

The Sharp Foundation’s recipient, the IPR, has given money to the News-Watch site, which produces content almost exclusively critical of the BBC, as well as to the Centre for Policy Studies and the TaxPayers’ Alliance – the latter of which campaigns for tax cuts and rails against “wasteful” government spending.

Sharp also gave £42,400 directly to Robert Colville, co-author of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto, director of the CPS, and editor-in-chief of the right-leaning publication CapX. Colville said the donation was made to him after the death of his wife to support him and his children. No wrongdoing is alleged.

The CPS has published several reports criticising the so-called bias at the BBC against Brexiters and the right.   

In the same time period, CapX published articles calling for abolition of the licence fee, with one headed “the licence fee model worked in 1946 – but it is now outdated and should be overhauled”. Several pieces also hit out at the BBC’s coverage on Russia. 

In 2018, the IPR funded analysis critical of the BBC’s coverage of Brexit.

It is not clear if Sharp disclosed these donations to the BBC upon his appointment as Chairman. They were not mentioned to parliamentarians when he was quizzed by MPs last month over the Johnson loan scandal.

Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee found that Sharp’s “omissions” relating to the Johnson loan “denied MPs the opportunity to fulfil their scrutiny role, as they were left without the full facts to make a judgement on his suitability” when he appeared before the Committee for a pre-appointment hearing in January 2021.

The Committee called on Sharp to “reflect on the potential damage caused to trust in the corporation”.

Sharp is understood to argue that he donates to a range of organisations in the spirit of “lively debate”. 

Right-Wing Ties

In 2018 – the year Sharp’s foundation donated to the IPR – the think tank gave £30,000 to News-Watch.

News-Watch’s coverage is almost exclusively targeted at the BBC, accusing it of bias against Brexit and the Conservatives. 

In January 2018, it published ‘The Brussels Broadcasting Corporation’ which was heavily critical of the BBC – one of many publications and articles it published that year criticising the corporation. In the report, News-Watch said it had “conducted around 40 separate reports into elements of the BBC’s output, including for the Centre for Policy Studies”.

Sharp sat on the board of the Centre for Policy Studies, which calls itself Britain’s “leading centre-right think tank” – a claim Johnson and Rishi Sunak have endorsed. 

Other pieces on the News-Watch site at the time claimed that “the reality is that the BBC has a skewed agenda” on climate change, Brexit and other issues. One, published jointly with a Tufton Street think tank, alleged that the BBC was highly partial and sat on the left of politics. 

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One ‘study’ by the group claimed that the BBC over-cited left-wing think tanks – but the methodology described the free-market capitalist think tank the Institute for Economic Affairs as left-wing; alongside climate-sceptic group the Global Warming Policy Foundation, headed up by Thatcher’s former Chancellor Lord Lawson. 

In 2017 and 2018, the IPR also gave the TaxPayers’ Alliance nearly £130,000 – making it the third-largest recipient of IPR funds after the CPS and Open Europe. The following year, it gave the TaxPayers’ Alliance £180,000, accounting for its largest grant at 39% of its total gifts that year.

Between 2016 and 2019, the TaxPayers’ Alliance ran social media posts including: “Do you agree that the BBC licence fee should be abolished?” Many of its comments in the media in this time pushed its campaign to scrap the licence fee. 

The BBC did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment when approached last month, as it said the issues raised preceded his time at the BBC.

Industry figures such as Jonathan Dimbleby and Baroness Patience Wheatcroft have called on Sharp to resign, while Labour and the SNP have described his position as “increasingly untenable”.

National Union of Journalist members working for the BBC believe Sharp must immediately resign, according to a snapshot poll with just over 1,000 respondents.

The Sunday Times recently reported that the BBC chairman put forward Caroline Daniel, at whose wedding he was an usher, for a paid advisory role at the BBC in 2021. The BBC told the newspaper it is “completely satisfied” that all procedures were complied with in full.

Conservative Oliver Dowden, Culture Secretary at the time Richard Sharp was appointed Chairman, has said he is confident in the process he oversaw. “I’m confident that we chose the right person to do the job of chairman of the BBC, and I continue to have confidence in him,” Dowden told the BBC.

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